Belfast Telegraph

Minister is urged to halt cuts after Osbourne reveals £2bn windfall for health service

By Joanne Sweeney

Health Minister Jim Wells has been urged to halt proposed cuts after the Chancellor said he would pump billions into the cash-strapped National Health Service.

George Osbourne said yesterday he intended to spend an additional £2bn on frontline health services next year.

Northern Ireland's chunk was initially expected to be between £50 and £70m, although Treasury sources later said it would be much less - £41m.

Last night the SDLP's health spokesman described the increase announced by the Chancellor as a "game-changer". Fearghal McKinney (right) urged Mr Wells to stop his consultation on service closures and "rethink the budget".

Mr Wells gave a cautious welcome to the news, saying it looked like extra money was coming to his department. But he stressed that the first predicted amount of around £60m would not even cover his budget shortfall for this year.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: "This news has taken us all by surprise, but I need to wait and see exactly what the Treasury proposes to give Northern Ireland, when and for what.

"If it's based on the Barnett Formula of 3%, then we can expect £60m out of the £3bn. I can assure you that I will have no problem in allocating these extra funds to the 2015/16 budget as we are currently carrying over a £160m shortfall pressure from this year.

"I can assure the public that the money will go directly to protect frontline services and not on anything like administration costs."

SDLP MLA Mr McKinney said he planned to raise the currently-planned cuts as an urgent question on the floor of the Assembly. "We all know of the pressures the Northern Ireland Health Service is under and if there is any chance of more money, it should be welcomed. This is a game-changer," he said.

Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy also welcomed the news and added: "In light of this news, I would urge the minister to call off the closure of Dalriada Hospital and the loss of beds in Downe Hospital and the cuts in domiciliary care."

UUP health spokesperson Jo-Anne Dobson MLA said: "The public here will be rightly watching very carefully to see where and how this money is spent, especially the considerable number of constituents contacting me through my office whose surgical operations, including hips, cataracts and gall bladders, have been postponed for months.

"I hope that this decision by George Osborne will see some of the recent decisions to slash services at least postponed until there is greater understanding of the current financial pressures facing our health service."

The Assembly's chair of the health committee, Sinn Fein MLA Maeve McLoughlin, welcomed the news but said it was too soon to comment further until more details were confirmed by the Treasury.

Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "Whilst the RCN welcomes any additional health funding for Northern Ireland, this is yet another "sticking plaster" solution to our financial crisis. We need a proper, sustainable, long-term financial plan for healthcare in Northern Ireland, not a series of short-term fixes."

George Osborne said the extra £2bn for the NHS had been made possible by the strength of the economic recovery. He is expected to reveal more details in his autumn statement on Wednesday.

However, the Chancellor acknowledged more "difficult decisions" on spending would be needed in the next parliament.

The Treasury uses the Barnett Formula to calculate how much the UK's regions get. It's expected that Northern Ireland's health service will get a windfall of £41m - well short of the £160m the Health Minister says is needed.

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